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High on Hemp

Posted on March 24, 2000

By Bert Caldwell, Spokesman Review

Spokane, Washington — Wendy Schneider and Jill Smith have heard all the jokes.

You get that when you’re in the hemp business.

But the partners in EarthGoods LLC quickly stress they market industrial hemp used to make everything from paint to paper, not its mind-altering relative marijuana.

Since August, they have been importing hemp fabric from Europe and China to satisfy growing domestic demand for a fiber considered so important during colonial times the state of Connecticut required its cultivation.

Smith said noted designer Ralph Lauren will use their fabric in his fall home fashion line. Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart are also sampling the material, she said.

The company must import the cloth because, except for a brief period during World War II, it has not been possible to grow industrial hemp in the U.S. since the 1930s.

While working to overturn the domestic prohibitions, Smith said EarthGoods has been building an overseas supply network.

Smith acquired some knowledge of foreign trade as one of the founders of Buckeye Beans & Herbs Inc., the specialized food company.

Schneider specializes in education and training, skills that will help EarthGoods expand into new markets.

There seems to be nothing you can’t do with the bamboo-like plant: The fiber can be woven into fabric or pressed into paper. Early drafts of the Declaration of Independence may have been written on hemp.

The plant’s cellulose can be used to produce plastics. Henry Ford once made auto body panels from the stuff.

Oil pressed from the plant can be used in paint or personal grooming products. The leftover cake can be fed to animals.

Schneider said advancing technology is unlocking still more applications. Europeans have fallen in love with hemp because the plant improves soil and substitutes for less ecologically friendly crops like cotton, she said.

And there’s one final benefit—marijuana plants pollinated by industrial hemp lose their potency.

“If you really want to eliminate marijuana, grow industrial hemp,” Smith said, noting that some plots of the crop were once found on the Palouse.

Hemp enthusiasts are making some headway, she said.

In December, hemp was planted in the US for the first time since the end of World War II. The carefully supervised plot on Hawaii was underwritten by a $200,000 grant from Alterna, a cosmetics and hair care company.

Minnesota and North Dakota have also authorized hemp cultivation. Other states support similar action.

Canadian farmers have planted about 100,000 acres of hemp. Royal Canadian Mounted Police check the plants for levels of THC, which gives marijuana its buzz.

Potent plants are plowed under.

But in the U.S., Schneider said, the Department of Agriculture and Drug Enforcement Administration have not yet approved recommercializing hemp.

So EarthGoods is building its business with imports until domestic supplies become available.

Eastern Europe makes the best hemp fabric for furniture covers and drapes, Smith said, while the Chinese specialize in lines suitable for clothing.

A Colorado-based partner who is an expert in hemp fabric was in China recently to identify a mill that would produce the quality and quantity that will satisfy American tastes, Schneider said.

Smith said a delegation from the mill selected will make a rare visit to the Northwest next month. Members will visit stores, showrooms and cut-andsew operations in Seattle, then come to Spokane to see the firm’s small downtown office and Valley warehouse.

“Our biggest fear is not being able to get enough fabric when we need it,” she said, adding that the Chinese may help finance the inventory.

Last week, EarthGoods had 8,000 square yards in the warehouse, with another 37,000 yards from China en route.

EarthGoods also recently bought a Seattle business owned by one of the four partners. American Hemp is the biggest distributor of twine, rope, webbing and cordage in the U.S.

Smith said the purchase gives EarthGoods hundreds of active accounts and cash flow while the fabric business develops.

She said the potential for Eastern Washington growers and processors could be as luxuriant as a thriving hemp field if old misconceptions can be overcome.

EarthGoods can build distribution channels, identify emerging uses and market new products, she said. Spokane could be at the nexus of that activity.

“I see tremendous opportunity down the road,” she said.

Copyright © 2000, Spokesman Review. All rights reserved.